BWW Reviews: PHILIP GLASS PORTRAIT TRILOGY: EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH Radically Reinvents Opera

Reviewed Thursday 7th August 2014

The second opera in the trilogy being presented by the State Opera of South Australia is Einstein on the Beach, a four act opera that, at well over fours hours, is so long that a meal break was inserted. It was originally performed outside and the audience could come and go as they pleased, but that obviously cannot work in an auditorium.

This opera has no soloists and, instead of an orchestra, only a small group of musicians from the Adelaide Art Orchestra are used, with two keyboard players carrying the bulk of the work and three reed instruments adding various colours. These hard working players are Peter Taylor, Jaclyn Hale, and Thomas Pulford on reeds, Carolyn Lam on violin and keyboard, and Nerissa Pearce and Andrew Georg taking turns, each playing organ for half of the opera

The opera has no plot or narrative, but offers sketches, suggests thoughts and, perhaps could be best described as an impressionist opera. Einstein gave us his general and special theories of relativity making him an innovative leader in mathematics and physics, giving science a completely new view of the universe. Many more discoveries have stemmed from that spark of genius, through the research of others often because they were trying to prove him wrong.

This production takes the first half and looks at Einstein's discoveries and then, in the second half, takes light as its central idea. From the formula E=MC2 that equates to half concerned with M, matter, and half concerned with C, the speed of light. It doesn't take long to see where E, energy, is involved because that is coming from everybody involved in the performance.

Mathematics features in this work right from the beginning when the organ plays its three chord theme and the singers count the beats of each chord as numbers, a motif that returns during the opera. The length of the three chords are a semibreve, a dotted semibreve, and two tied semibreves, and so the singers count: (La m) one two three four (Sol) one two three four five six (Do) one two three four five six seven eight. Occasionally a number is not spoken, leaving a brief silence. This opening, Knee Play 1, is almost hypnotic. From this deceptively simple opening, the work grows organically, encompassing so many ideas.

The State Opera Chorus, the musicians from the Adelaide Art Orchestra, and the Leigh Warren Dancers face an artistic marathon. As if they are not working hard enough already, they are given extra duties, with several of the dancers reciting text, and some members of the chorus singing solo passages, and all of the singers are required to learn movement, not to mention the striptease. You'll have to attend to find out what that means.

There is no doubt that this opera alone is a huge work, and putting the three operas together as a trilogy equates well against a full cycle of Wagner's Ring for its complexity and workload. These Glass operas are hugely demanding, and Timothy Sexton and Leigh Warren are not only to be commended for tackling this project in the first place, but also for assembling the people capable of carrying it through to fruition, and achieving such an exceptional result.

Once again Mary Moore's design and Geoff Cobham's lighting work like a hand in a glove. Her set references the branch of mathematics that includes geometry and trigonometry, through the use of large triangles, with black and white dominating. Cobham later adds colour and patterns of light such that the fixed visuals, the moving visuals of the dancers, the music, the spoken word, and the singing become one sensual feast after another. There is never a dull moment in the entire evening.

The State Opera Chorus is always exceptional, and this opera really puts them to the test, one that they pass with flying colours. Diction and projection are vital in this opera, as are concentration and endurance. This chorus has it in spades. Every syllable is crystal clear through the entire evening, and the occasional solos are thrilling.

The orchestra doesn't miss a beat and, again, Timothy Sexton maintains a clear understanding of the music and communicates it precisely to musicians, singers, and dancers alike. Carolyn Lam deserves special mention for her beautiful rendition of the violin solo.

Leigh Warren has created some amazing work with his dancers, who suggest a vast range of concepts in their movements, from mathematical ideas to abstract and esoteric thought, appropriate for the man at the centre of this opera. They also do a remarkably good job of the recitations, and could easily be mistaken for actors.

The soloists and speakers need special mention, with Fiona Linn first to solo on These Are the Days, Michael Denholm and Kristen Hardy on The Court, leading to Dion Hastie with Mr. Bojangles. David Cox gives us Paris Text and Gabi Carter presents Paris Text 2 then, in the second act Gala Moody presents These Are the Days. After the meal break we returned and Rebecca Jones presented Supermarket, whilst dancing on pointe, Dion Hastie reprieved Mr. Bojangles, Andrew Linn offered I Feel the Earth Move, and then Norbert Hohl presented an impassioned version of Lovers on a Park Bench. There are, as one can see from those titles, many references made within this opera.

What might surprise some people is that it was all over before we knew it, the performance so captivating and absorbing that the time just flew past. Einstein led us to an understanding that time can slow down and speed up and so it seems quite reasonable that hours of opera in his name should seem much, much shorter than the clocks told us.

There are two more cycles of this trilogy in the next two weeks. Be sure to get tickets. This may never happen again in your lifetime.




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From This Author Barry Lenny